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Jakarta And Beyond!

Originally Posted: October 07, 2010

Bob Schiff

Dutch influence in Jakarta. (Bob Schiff)

Editor's Note: Our roving international correspondent, Bob Schiff, has been traveling throughout Asia, reporting on the obscure and exotic. Here is his second of many communiques detailing his travels. Enjoy Shiff's musings on the locals, customs, accommodations, and certainly the visual and descriptive majesty of the sites he is visiting and documenting.

Jakarta - While on the surface there is not a lot to like about Jakarta - it doesn't have the color of Bangkok, the richness of Singapore or Hong Kong, or the history of Delhi - after a week invested in "living" the city it began to grow on me. I think all travelers ask the same question of themselves wherever they visit, "Could I live here?" With weekend jaunts to Bali, sure. With over 20 million people in the urban sprawl it's a challenging city to understand. What is evident though is that Jakarta is a thriving, happening city on the move - upwards. This city is not looking back and history is now measured in real time - what's new, what's now and what's next.

Looking into Ijen crater at the unnaturally turquoise lake within.

Thankfully taxis and bajaja's (local tuk-tuk) are cheap because between the sprawl and oppressive heat it's the only way to go. There are many modern skyscrapers several of which are creative architectural statements. Not much in the way of cultural or historic sites except for the Monas - a towering memorial in the center of the city and several old colonial buildings left over from the Dutch primarily in the Kota area. The traditional Makassar schooners lining the docks in Sunda Kelapa harbor still ferry freight between the islands.

Many of the major American brands are well represented - McDonald's (of course), Pizza Hut, Burger King, Dunken Donuts, KFC, Starbucks and on and on. Many major global companies including a surprising number of high-end hotels were also evident. Traffic is a nightmare. Like all Asian cities, malls are a big thing. I visited several and they are as impressive as any in the west with all the major high-end brands represented including: Prada, Tiffany, Couch, LV, etc., etc., etc. There are clearly people here making big bucks. In fact, I saw a Ferrari 430 parked in front of a club I went to one night. In short, Jakarta is clearly a vibrant city that compares favorably with any other major city in the developing world. Sure it has its pollution, crowding, poverty, and frustrating inefficiencies just like any other major city but it also has that energy, vibe and self-confidence that lets everyone know Jakarta, and with it the whole of Indonesia has arrived.

There is a heavy military and police presence everywhere (not unlike London or New York after 9/11). This country has seen its share of Islamic terrorist violence. Heightened security surrounds malls, hotels and government buildings. Trunks open and mirrors under cars are the norm. That's actually a good thing except that it is all pretty lax - not once did my cell phone set off an alert while passing through an entryway metal detector. Hummmm.

Vista from top of Ijen volcano.

The nightlife is as sophisticated as that found in any major city. There is a death penalty for drugs in Indonesia but ecstasy can be found in the big clubs. Music, dress and "attitude" is as elsewhere in the world. Surprising for a Muslim country. Head scarves and fasting during Ramadan and drugs, sex and rock-and-roll at night. Not sure how it all squares with Mohamed's teachings.

After a week in Jakarta it was time to move on. I took an eight and a half hour train ride to the next major tourist destination, Yogyakarta.

Yogyakarta, or Jogja, is a city of about 750,000 in central Java. It still has a Sultan and is the gateway to two of Indonesia's World Heritage sites and prime tourist attractions, the Buddhist temple complex of Borobudur and the Hindu temple of Prambanan. Jogja and surrounds lie in the shadow of Merapi - one of the most active volcanoes on the planet which served to define much of history in the area. Local transportation is by becak (trthree wheeled peddle cart) and there are hundreds of them with drivers lounging on the passenger seat smoking a clove cigarette strewn throughout the city. ou can't pass one without the driver calling out, "transport?". After endless polite "no thank you's" it wears on you.

On the plus side Jogja has many universities which primarily cater to a very artistic and creative student population. I'm sure there is a great underground artist scene but as it was Ramadan and Jogja is a very conservative area there was absolutely nothing going on when I was there. Did the major tourist sites including the Sultan's Palace, the Kraton and a few other sites around town. I visited Prambanan temple and lucked into a guide who wrote the definitive book on the site (he will probably guide Obama when he visits in November) - a worthwhile investment. That evening I returned to the temple to attend the operatic performance of the Ramayana - over 250 exotically costumed performers in an open air theater with the temple illuminated in the background - a truly spectacular setting and memorable event.

Turquoise lake.

Next I headed off on a motorbike for a few days to Borobudur. Did a ride through the countryside - lush tropical forests, vibrant green terraced rice fields and many small villages, each specializing in a artisan craft. Up early for a short drive and hike to a hilltop vantage point to see sunrise over the Borobudur temple.

Mount Bromo And Ijen Crater
Next up on my eastward journey was a visit to Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park and the Ijen Plateau. I opted to join a three day/rtwo night tour as it was the easiest and by far cheapest, surest and fastest way to take in these two natural wonders. Especially given the area's reputation for tourist scams - the locals are all in cahoots and know they've got you in a remote area with limited time and alternatives and try to take full advantage.

After 11 hours in a van from Jogja to Probolinggo and another one and a half hours in another van we reached Cemoro Lawang - a small Tengger village at the rim of the Bromo caldera. When I booked the tour back in Jogja I had selected the Cafe Lava guesthouse but for some reason the driver tried to get me to stay at every place other than that I had booked. It got testy but I stood firm. Must have been a commission thing. Anyway, I was up at 4:30 a.m. for the one hour drive in an old (but in great condition) classic Toyota Land Cruiser to a vantage point to watch sunrise over three major volcanoes - the steaming Bromo, Batok and the towering Semeru in the background. At 2,770 meters in was cold - low to mid 30's F - but what an awesome place.

Unbeknown to any of us on the tour the day of our visit was an important annual Tengger holy festival, Kasada. Between the tourists and the local families there were several hundred people up for the sunrise viewing and then driving down into and across the caldera and climbing up to the rim of Bromo to throw offerings into the smoking crater.

After breakfast it was seven hours in another van to the Ijen Plateau. Far more remote and far fewer tourists. As we approached the area the grade steepened and road surface deteriorated - this was four wheel drive country yet we rode on in a small underpowered van. Coffee plantations are carved into the deciduous forest and a few small village outposts serve the plantations. We depart at 3:30 a.m. for the one hour drive and one and a half hour trek up to the rim of the Ijen crater. It is a steep and long climb up to the rim of the crater. Signs are posted forbidding tourists from climbing down into the crater - it is an arduous boulder strewn route. Few people heed them.

These guys chip off slabs of sulfer rock and carry them up from the crater and then down the mountain.

Ijen is unique in that there is an unnatural electric blue colored lake within the crater. At the edge of the lake a sulfuric cloud billows from fissures in the rock which are surrounded by bright yellow sulfur deposits. Looks like the fire and brimstone (another name for sulfur) of hell. A steady stream of local sulfur "miners" climb up the volcano and down into the crater, chip away about 70 to 90 kg of sulfur rock and load the slabs into two baskets affixed to a pole that they carry on their shoulder back down the volcano. Often with a clove cigarette hanging from their lips. I couldn't even lift the load and had difficulty just climbing up and down the boulders into the crater carrying nothing. Pretty amazing. I think they make more money from the tourists in return for allowing pictures then they make actually selling the sulfur.



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